N.C. Congress runoff pits Trump favorite versus young rival

A vote here sign is seen outside a polling place this spring. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

RALEIGH — Western North Carolina voters in a congressional primary runoff are deciding whether to accept President Donald Trump’s favored candidate for the seat recently held by his Chief of Staff Mark Meadows or choose her young rival.

Lynda Bennett, who got the most votes in a 12-candidate GOP primary in March, gained the president’s public support in the final weeks before Tuesday’s election against 24-year-old Madison Cawthorn, who finished second. The runoff winner will take on Democrat Moe Davis and other party nominees in November. The district is still considered Republican-leaning despite recent boundary changes following litigation.

The runoff was originally scheduled last month but got delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Entering the final days of the campaign, mail-in absentee ballots were being returned at twice the level received in the district before the March 3 primary, which had many more races. Early in-person voting sites were open through Saturday, and election day precincts in several of the district’s 17 mountain counties were consolidated mostly to address social distancing challenges.

Meadows, who held the 11th District seat since 2013, was a leader in the House Freedom Caucus and later one of Trump’s closest congressional allies. He announced late during December’s candidate filing period he wouldn’t seek reelection, and endorsed Bennett, a Haywood County real estate company owner and friend of Meadows’ wife.

Meadows was named chief of staff shortly after the March primary and formally resigned the seat a few weeks later. So few are surprised that Trump backed Meadows’ choice. “She is strong on Crime, Borders, Military, our Great Vets & 2A,” Trump tweeted, referring to the Second Amendment. “She will be a great help to me in DC.”

Based on her TV ads, Bennett is hoping that Trump’s tweet, along with videotaped endorsements from Sen. Ted Cruz and Freedom Caucus founder Rep. Jim Jordan will win over the runoff electorate.

“I’m proud of the race we are running,” Bennett said in a statement thanking Trump for his endorsement and mentioning hot-button Republican issues like abortion, gun rights and building a U.S.-Mexico border wall. She added: “I’m defending America’s history, heritage and culture from those who seek to tear it down — and standing up for law, order and justice for all.”

Bennett’s campaign spent $221,000 for the two months ending June 3, according to federal campaign reports, compared to $151,000 spent by Cawthorn’s committee.

Like before the first primary, Bennett is benefiting from several hundred thousand dollars in spending by campaign arms of the Freedom Caucus, with ads supporting her and opposing Cawthorn, a Henderson County real estate investment company CEO. He’s getting support with ads from the Protect Freedom PAC, which backs candidates allied with Sen. Rand Paul.

Cawthorn turns 25 — the constitutional minimum to serve in the House — in August. Paralyzed from the abdomen down after a car accident in Florida in 2014, Cawthorn said he’s running now because he’s learned that life is precious and “there is no time to wait.”

Cawthorn said he’ll be one of Trump’s biggest allies if elected. But he sought to reframe Bennett’s endorsements, saying he wouldn’t be beholden to anyone in Washington if he reaches Congress.

“The only people I want to be endorsed by is the people of western North Carolina,” he said in an interview, but “by no means do I underestimate what a Donald Trump endorsement can do.”

Early voting trends could show some hope for Cawthorn, according to Western Carolina University political science professor Chris Cooper. Voting has been heavy in Cawthorn’s home county of Henderson, Cooper said, and hard feelings remain among some GOP activists about how late Meadows announced his decision not to run.

“I think he’s got a fighter’s chance to win,” Cooper said.

Unlike other primary races in other states with tabulation delays due to long lines and spikes in absentee balloting, North Carolina elections executive director Karen Brinson Bell said she anticipated full, unofficial results to be released Tuesday night. Poll workers must wear face masks and in-person voters are being given single-use pens and cotton swabs to record their choices, Bell said. Machines also are being cleaned repeatedly.

With Meadows’ resignation, the 11th District race remains vacant. Gov. Roy Cooper hasn’t announced a special election to decide who would serve out the remainder of his term. 

Catch up on NSJ’s coverage of the race here